The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

by Milan Kundera
Start Free Trial

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

Just as James Joyce made Dublin a microcosm of modern European consciousness, so has Milan Kundera transformed Prague and the Czechoslovak experience into a microcosmic model of contemporary European destiny. He fears the loss of a European cultural heritage that he finds embodied in the Central European experience. Kundera chronicles the forced expulsion of culture and history from Central Europe by its Russian overlords and the dissipation of the same culture by the cacophony of the Western media. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting juxtaposes sexual farce, fairy tale, historical chronicle, political tract, literary criticism, autobiography, and musicology to offer multiple views of contemporary existence.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Just as Tamina is being led away to the children’s island of “forgetting about forgetting,” she regains a fragment of her memory. In a sudden moment of deja vu, the clay slope of the riverbank brings back a visit she made to her husband at the construction site where he last worked in Czechoslovakia. She remembers the moment in all of its love and anguish and despair and suddenly realizes that her grief has content as well as form—a content for which she must continue to search. Yet it is too late for Tamina; the boat has arrived, and Raphael leads her to her Lethean journey across the river. His pleasant and infectious laughter, echoed by the boy who rows the boat, seduces Tamina with a promise of peace and joy. She steps into the boat, and her destiny is sealed.

Homework Help

Latest answer posted August 15, 2009, 2:36 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Kundera implies that once an individual joins the laughing circle of certainties, the possibilities for questions and searching are forgotten. Defection from the assured circle allows one, again, to choose and question, but then one will forever suffer the grief of individuality and lonely knowledge. It is this self-awareness and individual consciousness that defines Western culture for Kundera. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting asks if the individual can survive in the contemporary world.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

A number of unhappy themes run through The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, two of which are referred to in the sardonic title. The title, which could be to a soothing child's story, suggests the attitude of childlike but sinister naivete that the communist state tries to instill in its citizens so that they can be better managed. Other key imagery compares communist faith to fundamentalist religion. The laughter referred to is the "laughter of the angels" — i.e., self-righteous ideologues who joy in their "idyllic vision" so fanatically that they are quite willing to punish or even kill dissenters. The initial appeal of the manifesto-thumping ideologues and the desire of other people to share such joy are understandable, but the truth of the idyllic vision cannot be tested since it conveniently lies in the future. Meanwhile the vision justifies all kinds of unsavory methods to reach it, which the state tries to cover up and erase from memory, just as it tries to erase any memory of historical events or a cultural past that might conflict with the vision. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting makes clear that the communist regime would like the Czechs and Slovaks to forget about their nationalist aspirations and the 1968 Russian invasion. A variation of the theme is how the rest of the world so soon forgot.

Opposed to the laughter of the angels is the laughter of the devil — i.e., the total skeptic or nihilist who mocks everything, including the angels' self-righteous stance. Obviously the angels and the devil cannot stand each other, but just as obviously both of their responses are too extreme. Kundera confesses that during his youth he once belonged to the company of the angels, but he was soon booted out, apparently because he asked too many questions or could not keep from mocking. Now he admits his natural inclination toward the devil. But the reader might see his inclination as, in part, a reaction to life under communism, which seems as likely to produce devils as angels: Once a true believer becomes disillusioned with the idyllic vision, there are few alternatives.

Related to the laughter of the devil is litost, a Czech concept that encompasses a host of unhappy and negative feelings — frustration, humiliation, remorse, desire for revenge, among others — but can be translated for short as "spite." For example, an extreme form of litost is "revenge by suicide." There is also "impacted litost," which has no convenient way of being vented. Kundera develops the theme of litost humorously, since he sees litost as an immature reaction — notably in the sexually frustrated student. But he also sees the historically denied Czechs and Slovaks suffering from cultural litost, which compels them to seek "revenge by suicide" as a nation. Kundera does not confess to any litost, but he does express a more mature version, writing out of a sense of banishment — of denial, exclusion, and exile — that sums up his other themes and serves as a metaphor for the modern human condition.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Summary

Next

Characters